Solo Travel: How Traveling to Paris Alone Changed My Life

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Girl in Paris

Four years ago I wasn’t very well traveled outside of my native North America. I’d seen most of the major centers in Canada and the tourist circuit in the United States, but I’d never been abroad and, apart from a winter vacation to a resort in the Dominican Republic, I had never been anywhere with a distinctly different culture or language from the one I grew up in.

I was still living in my home town; I owned a house, had pets, was in a long term relationship and I even had a pretty great job working for a museum. I thought I was happy and outwardly I felt pretty content to continue my life in this fashion. As an aside, a travel-obsessed lifestyle isn’t for everyone; some people find great happiness with the kind of life I’ve just described and that’s great. The difference for me is that though I thought I was happy, I was actually unfulfilled in ways I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge – otherwise what happened wouldn’t have happened. Plenty of people travel to Paris every year and it doesn’t make them sell their house, quit their job and move thousands of miles away from home.

One of my best friends had fallen in love with a British man and she’d moved to London to begin a new life with him. In a lot of ways she had been living a life similar to mine; she seemed settled, had bought a big beautiful house with a partner she’d been with for years, and she had pets and a job. A year before she moved to London, if anyone was laying bets, the odds would have been on her staying put. Everything was settled. Maybe we weren’t living sparkly lives but we were mostly carrying on doing the things that girls nearing their thirties do; we were realistic. When I imagined the future, it involved us meeting for dinner at the same sushi restaurant in the center of town, drinks in the pub next door and maybe the odd live gig at a local venue. It was all okay.

Then she went and fell in love overseas and moved away; she ruined everything.

Friendship is a funny thing and I remember when this all happened, beneath the happiness I felt for her was a bit of jealousy and even a tiny bit of anger (though of course I admitted to neither of these feelings). I can remember telling myself that she was crazy to take the risk; but what I was really trying to do was convince myself that this life I’d built that was certainly enough, was still enough for me. If my friend, with all of her ties and responsibilities, could make this kind of a change it meant that I could do it too. And that possibility was terrifying.

About eight months after she moved to London I visited her. She took me to see all the things that tourists are meant to see when visiting London: we had nice lunches, boozy nights out over karaoke, a ride on the London Eye, we went shopping in Covent Garden, we even saw Prince play at the O2 Arena.

It was early August and I remember thinking that London was a great, smelly blur. I spent our time outside the flat following blindly behind my friend and her husband, scampering to keep up. I never knew where I was or where I needed to go because I had two lovely people willing to lead me everywhere. At the time they lived in Bermondsey in South London and my friend and I would often walk through the London Bridge area – a place in London that still confounds me with its maze-like streets and layers of city built on top of one another. You think you’re on street level and then you climb a flight of stairs and suddenly find … another level of street. After living in London for awhile, I now find a huge amount of charm in this very old, cobbled area of the city, but back then I was confused and overcome by the garish faces of actors trying to drag us into the Dungeons theme park.

Ever since first watching the movie Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulin I’d been in love with the idea of Paris. I imagined quirky cafes filled with poets, and eating pastries in the filtered late afternoon light along the Seine, my lips perpetually stained red from the constant supply of wine. Before traveling overseas, I’d booked the Eurostar return from London to Paris and a private room in a little hostel in Montmartre (the main area of the city showcased in the Amelie film). I wasn’t sure when I’d ever be so close to Paris again and wanted to make sure I would get the chance to see it. It’s lucky that I’d booked in advance because after a week of feeling lost in London, my confidence was shot and the idea of going to Paris alone scared me to death. But everything was already paid for. I felt like a child who has argued with her mother to be allowed to go off the high diving board at the pool; the mother finally relents and the child climbs up the ladder only to find that she is terrified of jumping off. She freezes and wants to turn around and climb back down, but everyone is watching. And so, she jumps.

Paris Montage

There is something romantic about traveling by train. As I watched gray London slide away, I felt like the child falling from the high platform and it was exhilarating. I continued to plummet as I fumbled my way to Montmartre and my hostel and spent a few perfect days navigating a city that immediately felt like home to me. Parisians have the reputation of being thorny to outsiders and I’m sure there’s some truth to that, but I was in love. There is art everywhere in Paris; on the Metro, tired looking old men play haunting melodies on their accordions, lovers make out on park benches and there’s a monument to beauty every time you turn a corner. Wandering around Montmartre, which is certainly as confusing an area as London Bridge, wasn’t frightening or overwhelming because I didn’t really have anywhere to be; you can’t get lost when you don’t have a destination. Getting completely turned around and then finding my way out again was one of the experiences I loved and I found that the men and women who ran the local fresh fruit and vegetable stands that are so common in Montmartre were always willing to point me in the right direction – usually while gentle correcting my shoddy French. Meals alone taken while listening to the animated prattle of French speakers at nearby tables while I dipped in and out of a book were some of my favorite moments, along with the rain that seemed to pour down every night muffling the sound of the church bells from nearby Sacre Coeur.

For me, the key to falling in love with Paris and consequently with travel, was that on my first visit I was alone. It was just me and the city. I am always surprised when I hear people say they hate Paris but I suspect their experience is so negative because they go with an agenda. Groups of people pile into Paris with itineraries – endless lists of things they must do and see within a tight schedule. It’s like a scavenger hunt for culture. And as anyone who has ever been lonely and single knows, the harder you look for connection and the more desperate you are to find something special, the more it tends to allude you. And so in their rush to see ‘everything’, they see nothing and they leave Paris wondering what all the fuss is about.

When I returned home to Canada and all of my responsibilities, I imagined that I would never be able to live in Paris or London. I’d created a world of stability for myself and with that, walls that would be very difficult to break down in large part because I’d selected them lovingly and built them with care. But now, four years later, I’ve lived in London, visited Paris a second time, spent time in Istanbul and Berlin, and am now in a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, at the beginning of an entire year of travel. If I could put my finger on the moment that gave me the courage to change my life, it would be those three short days I spent wandering the streets of Paris alone.

Image Credits:

Girl in Paris via We Heart It
Paris via We Heart It

 

32 Responses

  1. Sarah

    July 9, 2010 8:16 pm

    Amazing! I have recently moved to the UK from Australia for 2 years. I’ve not ‘traveled’ around much. However it is the solo time in places that really brings home where you are and what you have achieved to get there. I never like to plan when i am in a new city and this article has put my mind at ease about having no plans for my upcoming trip to Paris in September. Thankyou.

    Reply
  2. Amy Thibodeau

    July 9, 2010 11:54 pm

    Thanks for the comment Sarah! I envy you – I wish I could have that first taste of Paris again. You’ll love it – it has all the sweetness and excitement of a first kiss. Have a wonderful time!

    Reply
  3. Mink

    July 10, 2010 1:02 am

    I loved your story!!!! I remember having a similar experience when I had booked a trip to Rome/Vatican City. I felt nervous, wishing my friend was coming and I was just getting over the flu. I had an amazing trip meeting new people, admiring art and architecture at my own pace and not feeling the rush of a tour. It was a feeling I couldn’t explain to people unless they themselves had experienced it. The sense of achievement, I realised I was capable of doing much more than I thought. I loved Rome! Then a few years later I went on a tour with my partner and he disliked Rome, I disliked it! It was a different Rome, being rushed here and there, constantly being told to watch our belongings, feeling pressured to go to certain places by people on the tour and the constant fear amongst the group. Thank you for sharing your experience!! ^_^

    Reply
  4. Chronos

    July 10, 2010 7:18 pm

    Hello fellow solo traveler! Like you, I have travel solo in Paris, and it was last year; it was so much fun when I didn’t have to follow any schedule. And if you love chocolate, there is a 3-hour walking tour just to try 10 bakery & chocolate shops. I got so full trying the goodies after the 7th shop… :-)

    Reply
  5. Marthe

    July 10, 2010 9:08 pm

    I loved this article! I’m currently in London for summer school, but in September I’m coming back alone to study here for a year. I’m so excited and anxious at the same time. I have a little weekend planned in Paris in August, and I’m going to make sure that I don’t go there with an agenda. That is such good advice!

    Reply
  6. mclicious

    July 10, 2010 10:51 pm

    Excellent essay. I’m really impressed by anyone who can travel alone their first time. I’ve had a passport for five years and have amazingly had the chance to visit nine countries so far, at least for a day in some, and as long as six weeks in others. But in every place, I’ve either been with family, on some kind of prescribed study abroad program, or with friends. You’re so brave! It’s inspiring; I’ll have to try going somewhere on my own next.

    Reply
  7. Amy Thibodeau

    July 11, 2010 5:34 pm

    Thanks so much for all the nice comments – you guys have made my week! I’m excited to check out some of your blogs. :)

    Reply
  8. Amy Thibodeau

    July 11, 2010 5:49 pm

    @Marthe London is my ‘home base’. I found it a hard city to get close to but once I did, it is just lovely. It’s so filled with history and strange little corners and alley ways. It might sound like a strange suggestion, but if you get the chance visit Highgate Cemetary up in North London. It’s beautiful and strange and well worth the short trip it takes to get there.

    Reply
  9. Caitlin Burns

    July 12, 2010 6:48 pm

    Thank you for this. Not only is it beautifully written, but I feel like solitude needs more love in general. I have friends & a boyfriend & a loving family, but they all recognize and respect my desire to simply be alone from time to time.

    I would love to travel alone (and I intend on it, despite the warnings!!) but everyone always tells me how that is potentially dangerous. You know, men see this aloof, foreign girl wandering the streets with stars in her eyes… What do you think about this? Did you ever feel uncomfortable safety-wise?

    Reply
  10. Amy Thibodeau

    July 13, 2010 9:10 pm

    @Caitlin – I can definitely understand the reluctance to travel alone, there are certainly horror stories out there. I think the key thing is to start slowly and pick somewhere that you are fairly comfortable with and make sure you do your research: make sure the hotel/hostel or apartment you are staying is well located and secure, find out which areas you should avoid. And then there are the precautions we unfortunately need to take as women whether we’re at home or traveling – be careful when talking to strangers, be aware of your surroundings and trust your gut, if it’s telling your something or someone if off then it’s worth listening.

    I think that a small amount of concern for safety is healthy – it will help to ensure you stay safe. This topic might make a good follow up post because you’re right – it is definitely something we need to be aware of.

    Thanks so much for the comment!

    Reply
  11. Hannah

    July 20, 2010 11:14 am

    Inspiring! I am leaving tomorrow to embark on a solo adventure around Europe. I’m 22 and have never travelled or lived alone before. This article is a comforting reminder of why I decided to take this trip. Thankyou!

    Reply
    • A Tramp Abroad

      August 26, 2010 3:29 am

      It is really one of those rare wonderful cities. I know some people don’t like it, but I have so much trouble relating to that. Beautiful food, every corner is a work of art – it’s really just a monument to beauty.

      Reply
  12. Solange

    August 22, 2010 4:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Amy! I fell in love with Paris when I was 21. I did a similar thing, took the Eurostar from London with a small daypack on my back and spent one night in Paris. I walked around for two days and returned to London wanting more. I went back a year later with my Dad but made it back properly a few months ago to do an intensive French course. Of course, I stayed in Montmartre for the month!
    Through all of Paris’ charm there is an edge that does require courage so it’s definitely a life-changing place to visit alone. Great stuff! :)

    Reply
    • A Tramp Abroad

      August 26, 2010 3:30 am

      Thanks Solange. It’s my dream to do a French course in Paris, or at least spend an extended period of time there. Have you read A Moveable Feast by Hemingway? If you haven’t and you love Paris, it will just make you crave the place. :)

      Reply
  13. chery

    March 29, 2011 7:32 am

    Lovely story and inspire me . I ever travel alone only in my country (Thailand) not aboard
    a littel bit worry:) This year not sure the period of time I plan to go to paris alone. Try to keep in brave and go…

    Reply
  14. Tally Koren

    July 24, 2011 10:38 am

    I am a singer-songwriter Tally Koren, Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world which I’ve visited on many different occasions, here are a few tips from my recent visit.

    1. For the first time I made a mistake when I booked my Eurostar but didn’t book it as a package with my hotel! From not the best experience of not finding any hotel and finding 3* hotels which cost over 300 euros I would like to give you an important tip for any town that you might visit in the world – check that there is no big event or festival when you are going to be there! As if any event, such as Paris Fashion Week you will end up playing triple the price; if you can even get a room! But also if it’s a festival a lot of the attractions are sometimes closed.

    2. Always go to an area that you know or have been recommended by someone. For me to recommend a restaurant in Paris is almost impossible as the food is always so good in any little café or a big restaurant. But I do have two recommendations. The first is the restaurant ‘Bel Canto’ which is a three-course meal with entertainment of opera, perfect for opera lovers! The second restaurant, where I ate the best omlette in the world, is on the rue Franklin Roosevelt which is opposite the Science Museum. There is only one place so sophisticated – you won’t miss it!

    A new area which I discovered this time was the Latin Quarter which is full of life. It has a local market on a Sunday, with people playing music in the piazza and is a lot more authentic than the tourist orientated areas. Also, there is the Mare, which is my favourite area in Paris and it has the Picasso museum, a lot of trendy shops and cozy cafes and there’s always a great atmosphere.

    I hope you can watch my video from Paris:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyhdZ15TK-E

    I have just launched a campaign for my new single 72 Names (Hallelujah) which will last for 72 days. Over the campaign I’m exploring the significance of the number 72 in lots of different situations and I would like you to be part of it!

    Reply
  15. Mace Namoc

    November 2, 2011 6:24 pm

    I’m glad I bumped into this website. I’ve read your story from top to bottom and I love it. It empowered and inspired me because I planned to visit Paris soon all by myself. I love the idea of going there alone, and hope I will fall in love with the city just like you did.

    Reply
  16. New at traveling

    December 2, 2011 8:50 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I hope I will love Paris too when I get there, this January. It’s going to be my first time traveling alone at age 20 and I will stay there for 5 months. The scary thing is I don’t speak French and I am hearing a lot of scary stories about how dangerous the streets can be.

    Reply
  17. Jessica

    January 30, 2012 2:17 am

    Thank you for this Amy. I am moving to the UK from Ontario in a couple of months, a week before my 32nd birthday. I’ve decided to spend a weekend in Paris, celebrating me, solo. xo

    Reply
  18. Kimberley

    March 21, 2012 4:34 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story.

    I went to Paris, like you, after watching the film “Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulin” (in homage my youngest daughter Gabrielle’s middle name is Amelie). Although I only spent 3 days & 2 nights there they are the most amazing and memorable moments I cherish to this day. I wish I could have stayed longer and hope to get back there with my children some day. They, should they wish, help be my translators, as I, living in Canada and loving Paris thought it would only serve them better to have a french immersion education. They speak french at 5 & 7 much better than I do.

    I digress…

    After reading your story I was taken back to Paris again and a smile spread across my face. I didn’t do the touristy things most would do but took pleasure in wandering off the beaten path and dining in bistro’s littered with the locals. One of the best decisions I made. They were patient with my broken french and shared stories in English with me. The french aren’t rude as we’ve been lead to belive, but rather, like most of us respond well to commen courtesy and a polite demeanor. I won’t hesitate to recommend Paris as a vacation destination for anyone.

    Thanks for rekindling my memories and making the rest of my day more enjoyable.

    Many good wishes to you and your travel adventures.

    Reply
  19. Melissa

    April 6, 2012 2:05 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, I have SO much been wanting to travel to Pairs or Greece. But people tell me I’m crazy for not wanting to go with a group, or pile it up with tours. When I go I want to experience what it would be like to live there, not just visit. (Though OF COURSE I would go see the Eiffel tower.) Now I am more confident about wanting to go alone! Your story is inspiring :D

    Reply
  20. Tarek Salah

    April 27, 2012 1:53 am

    i’m travelling to paris alone in June, and google, “travel alone to paris” this came up! hope i have a similar experience..but as a male..it maybe different..people aren’t as “open” to males

    Reply
  21. chris

    July 24, 2012 9:17 pm

    Great story Amy. I’m just in Paris on my own for a few days also. I drove all the way from Dublin Ireland and I couldn’t agree with you more. My trip seemed so daunting before I set off, now after a few days in Paris wandering the streets, chilling in the cafés. It really does open you up to the world. Tomorrow I set off for Lyon.

    Reply
  22. Jodie

    October 2, 2012 4:20 am

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this story. It was beautiful! I’m planning to take a week-long solo trip to Paris next fall. I have never travelled alone before (I’m 22), and I’m rather nervous about it, so your story was very inspiring for me!

    Reply
  23. Samantha

    May 26, 2013 9:10 pm

    I found your story because I was looking for people who had traveled alone and for good advice! Everyone I found has met people in hostels however, I’m staying in a tiny hotel so meeting people wasn’t on the program! I wanted to explore the city and get to know it on my own terms as I’ve been there twice before on school trips and found it rushed and really didn’t appreciate the city in the way I should have. Your story has made me so excited for my trip, and more relaxed about taking in the city in my own! Did you go out alone at night to bars and such? I want to explore the nighife a little as well but is that difficult to do when you’re on your own?

    Reply
  24. Helen Brown

    August 30, 2013 5:33 pm

    I loved your essay. There are tears in my eyes. I am going to Paris alone in three week!. I am 59 and I have dreamed of Paris all my life. I decided if I kept waiting for someone to go with or for enough money to “do it up right”, I might never make it. You have encouraged me and I thank you

    Reply

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